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Citrus Canker Sparks Projects for Florida Contractor

Tue May 09, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Brian Kern

In a place where citrus groves once dominated the landscape all the way to the horizon, coconut palm saplings and sprawling subdivisions are now sprouting up.

On the western edge of Vero Beach, FL, Joe Massagee, vice president of Heavy Equipment Services (HES) drives his truck through a decontamination spray on the way to one of the company’s work sites.

“The citrus canker destroyed most of the orchards in the area,” Massagee said. “We’ve been involved in some of the clearing and burning projects.”

Driving past a massive bonfire fueled by uprooted citrus trees graphically demonstrated the transition taking place in Florida’s internationally renowned Indian River growing area. Funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture dollars, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Commerce has condemned, quarantined and eradicated thousands of acres of citrus orchards throughout the state in an attempt to save the endangered industry from itself.

After a few more turns on dirt roads, farther into the now barren field of former mucky swampland that supported acre after acre of citrus production, Massagee meets one of his crews working an 80-acre site that will soon become a tree and shrub nursery. Heavy Equipment Services is doing the excavating, earthmoving and grading.

“An acre of this land used to go for $10,000 to $15,000,” Massagee said. “Now it’s up to around $75,000. The farmers are realizing that it’s more profitable to sell their land than to keep gambling with the canker epidemic.”

HES offers a variety of services.

“We do it all — from clearing to final grading to sod,” Massagee said. “We also recently started doing all of our own plumbing in-house, and we do all underground electric cables and boxes.”

Massagee said final grading amounts to approximately 25 percent of his company’s total business.

“Local builders we work with like the fact that they can hire us for all of their excavation needs from start to finish,” he said. “It creates a great working relationship — they know we’ll do the small stuff as well as the larger jobs. We don’t really have any competition for that reason.”

HES owns a 12-acre sand mine that supports grading projects in several new housing subdivisions, though the nursery project is self-supporting, using dirt from the site. The sandy soil being dug out of the pit by a Case CK290 excavator is highly regulated and monitored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. After being tested for a slew of potentially harmful sediments and deemed safe, the sand is hauled to area sites where the terrain will be built up to a 6-ft. base over old swamp lands where citrus once grew.

With five subdivision projects ongoing, Heavy Equipment Services’ truck division coordinates a continuous parade of 19 dump trucks: Peterbilts, Macks and Freightliners.

“Our excavation division has four excavators and seven loaders,” Massagee said. “We just bought a new Kobleco SK210 excavator and we have a Kobelco 235SRLC that has virtually no tail swing.”

In a project that began early last year, Massagee said his company is constructing the Lakes of Sandrich subdivision off 71st Avenue in Vero Beach. It is scheduled for completion in 2008. While making his daily rounds Massagee checks in on a two-man crew grading a lawn of one of the newly constructed home. Using a New Holland T308, the team final-grades four or five homes a day, according to Massagee.

Back at the 80-acre nursery site being prepared for a Miami horticultural company, Tim Ryan, HES superintendent, climbs down from a Volvo G710 track hoe.

“We’re grading this lot from a three-foot center down to zero,” he said. “We can’t have any standing water. We’re enlarging the existing irrigation pond and using that dirt to build up the site. The last thing we’ll do is build an access road on the way out.”

Ryan, a red-bearded veteran heavy machine operator and part-time wood sculptor, has worked for HES for four years. He said he doesn’t like to stray too far from the seat of a track hoe or an excavator: “It balances out the administrative and supervisory work.”

Massagee said he doesn’t know what he would do without Ryan’s knowledge and expertise: “He works 10 to 12 hour days, seven days a week. He runs all of our job sites.”

On the way to the nursery site, Massagee stopped off to check the progress of another job and to demonstrate the variation in size of his company’s on-going projects.

HES dozer operator Adam Bearsley was working solo at the controls of a Komatsu D41P dozer, grading a single home pad and waiting for the next load of dirt to arrive. The pad, built up to 5 ft. will support a large single-family residence.

The 10-year old excavation firm is an offshoot of the family-owned Marble and Granite Company, established 35 years ago. HES covers a region from St. Lucie to Palm Bay. CEG

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